Looking-Glass Self – Our Core Beliefs Affect Our Mindset Our perception of how others view us affects our psychosocial development

Those early interpersonal interactions with our primary caregivers are the building block of identity formation.  They are the look-glass through which we form our core beliefs (lovable/good-enough or unlovable/defective) which in turn molds our mindset(mental attitude). It is our mindset  (optimistic/pessimistic, fixed/growth) that determines how we cope with life’s challenges which determines our success or failure.

Your self-identity subconsciously affects your mental, physical and social well-being.

According to the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, who coined the term looking-glass self – a person develops a concept of self by observing how he/she is perceived by others.

I’m not what I think I am. I’m not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.

Our perception of others’ opinions about us influences our self-image and how we interact with the world.

Looking-Glass Self – How Core Beliefs Affect Our Mindset
Our internalized looking-glass self affects how we see the world and relate to it

Cooley’s close collaborator, George Herbert Mead, theorized that only certain people could influence our perception of self and only during certain periods of life. And the way that others influence us changes across our lifespan.

Nonetheless, it is the foundation of our early years that influences how we view ourselves within the contextual framework of society.

Significant Self-Mirrors

A developing child needs at least one caring human being who will mirror loving acceptance. If we have had positive experiences while growing up, we develop a healthy self-concept and high self-esteem.

Conversely, growing up in an environment of inconsistent, invalidating, neglectful, or abusive caretakers distorts our mirrors of reality. Our self-image and identity get fragmented and become unstable. We end up being confused and disoriented about who we really are.

I had a fairly good enough mother who mirrored unconditional positive regard until her death when I was 11. However, post her death that was all gone. The pervasive reflection was being unwanted/a nuisance. However, it was the lustful looks at my budding teenage sexuality and the utter hateful condemnation of my aunt and grandmother that totally messed up how I view myself – bad, dirty,

The only way to survive was to suppress my real feelings and develop a protective body armor – scoliosis.

The Looking Glass Self

In the early nineties, Cooley introduced the looking glass self as an individual’s self-concept. He used the old English term looking glass, as a metaphor to describe an individual’s reflection of themselves in terms of their social self.

Both Cooley and Mead opined that people were not born that way with biologically determined behavior and potential. Rather, they believed that human nature was a product of society

Furthermore, Mead asserted that some people are more important to us than others. Those who are most important to our self-concepts are called significant others. For children, significant others are parents, siblings, extended family, and teachers. As we grow, particularly in our teens, peers often become more significant. For adults, spouses and employers become more significant. 

Currently, for me, my adult son is my significant other.

Two important questions to ask ourselves:

1) Who are the most important people in my life? 

2) How do they make me feel?

What’s crucially important to our mental well-being is that our significant other/s mirrors goodness, kindness, acceptance. If that’s not forthcoming in the relationship you’d be better off without this person in your life.

The Looking-Glass Self Occurs In Three Steps:

1) How we imagine we appear to others

2) How we imagine others’ thoughts or judgments on how we appear

3) Forming a self-concept (belief) on how we perceive others think about us. This is how our internal core belief system is formed.

Though, Cooley emphasized that a person has free will/autonomy in deciding which judgments to pay attention to as well as evaluating the responses of others. The scope of this autonomy is limited when we are children.

People Who Matter Shape How We See Ourselves

Usually, the process of the looking-glass self is transmogrified by the context of each interaction and the nature of the people involved. Not all feedback carries the same weight. For instance, parents, primary caregivers, teachers, priests all those who have authority over us, tend to have far-reaching influence on our self-concept – whether positively or negatively.

Usually, it is our earlier encoded core belief system that influences how we perceive our later social interactions. This may not always be the real truth if we have experienced childhood trauma. Communication signals may be misunderstood/misinterpreted.

Distorted Lens Of An Abusive Childhood

A legacy of an abusive childhood distorts the lens through which we interpret people’s behavior or action. To effectively operate in the world one needs to feel a sense of consistency between one’s internal and external worlds. We cannot function in an ongoing state of cognitive dissonance.  Our brain tries to deal with these crazy-making inconsistencies by creating a false narrative. We adjust, deny, distort, select and repackage the situation.

Instead of seeing that predatory uncle as creepy (after all, he is my uncle), I began thinking that maybe I am bad. Moreover, the flying monkeys kind of further brainwashed me into thinking – I really am a wicked, horrible creature.

Corrosive Belief System

When this creepy uncle began lustfully eyeing me, his wife accused me of trying to seduce him, and when I happened to wear a dress that I had partially outgrown, my grandmother reproachfully said, ‘Why do you have to wear such tight clothes?‘. Implying that I was purposely trying to be seductive. There was no consideration that I was only 13 and had no choice of what I wore since there was no one to buy me clothes my size.  Oh, how I worked to shape myself so as not to be considered a seductress.

These early corrosive views of our caregivers forever distort one’s sense of identity. This faulty operating program then negatively influences all our adult interpersonal interactions. Even if people don’t see us how our parents/caregivers saw we continue seeing through that earlier distorted looking glass. The consequences of this faulty perception can prevent us from having satisfying and positive relationships.

The Deference-Emotion System

The deference-emotion system is an automatic system through which we gauge interpersonal interactions and accordingly adjust our behavior in order to fit in/survive in our environment. .  Interwoven in our daily social interactions is the subtle and largely imperceptible process of evaluation and modification.

In the face of neglectful, abusive, narcissistic parenting, a child has to become what psychologist, Donald Winnicott calls compliant— the child will adjust their behavior, without even thinking consciously about it. This conformity to their environment is the child’s attempt to protect themselves from further inadequacy or disappointment—but it is a covering up of the original, true desire. This is the birth of the false self.

The only way to survive in an abusive home is to suppress our authentic selves and behave in ways that we think will gain approval and acceptance. And thus the genesis of a life-long people-pleasing codependent.

Shame, Guilt, and False Perceptions

Eventually, as time passes by and the more we stay in dysfunctional environments we ignore/doubt our perceptions, discount our feelings, and overlook our needs. Our looking glass self becomes predominantly other glass self. Our fear of being condemned, mocked, rejected prevents us from living authentically.

We are constantly scanning our environment, looking to others to tell us what to think, what to feel and how to behave.

Like a leaky faucet, shame and guilt have been drip stalling my life. For most of my adult life, it was through this distorted-looking glass did I view myself.

Getting over years of feeling ashamed is an uphill task. It is very painful as one has to bring to light all that one hid deep within your soul.

Changing Our Point of View

After reading/listening to so many survivor stories my point of view shifted. No longer do I feel I am bad rather the adults in my life acted badly. After all, I was just a child.

We need to have positive mirrors who will mirror back loving acceptance but who can also give us the hard truths with kindness and compassion

Having an enlightened witness who does not judge but accepts you warts and all helps enormously. It could be a therapist, friend, family, and sometimes even online support groups can change how we see ourselves.

Furthermore, a change in perspective allows you to have that epiphany of awareness that changes the way you see things.

Without this shift in perspective, it is very difficult to change a belief.

Two Important Steps To Changing Our Looking-Glass Self

Change is difficult, it does not happen overnight. It takes consistent, intentional action towards changing our brain wiring in order to become the person we want to be.

Two crucial elements are key to transforming our self-identity/mindset.

1) Our Inner-Circle

Author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once famously stated, ‘You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.’ Even though this may not be the whole truth, there is undeniable evidence that interpersonal neurobiology is a real thing.

Without a doubt, the people we spend time with impact us – positively or negatively, particularly if we are emotionally invested

Ask yourself: How do I feel around this person?

Do they uplift me? Are they supportive? Do they validate me, listen to me?

Or do I need to constantly walk on eggshells around them? Are they constantly putting me down? Is there reciprocity or am I always over-giving? Or do they keep me in the loop of intermittent reinforcement?

The below video aptly articulates why some relationships can be such a mindf**k.

There Are TOXIC People, Then There Are THESE PEOPLE!

2) Taking Intentional Action

Mental health expert, David Ekers and others have shown, the practice of behavioral activation – intentionally engaging in activities one associates with positive memories and feelings—is an important part of effective treatment for mood disorders/depression. The fastest, most reliable way to change how you feel is by changing what you do.

That is why it is so important to do something that you find meaningful, satisfying. and fun It could be a hobby or work or helping out.  Finding your Ikigai or raison d’être  – ‘our reason for being’ is vital for our mental well-being.

Since I took up baking and have become more skillful at it I sense a shift in how I view myself. Also writing this blog and receiving some positive feedback has changed my self-identity.

Focusing on some form of intrinsically rewarding work, and becoming good at it, is a prerequisite to growth and change.

Internalized Looking-Glass Self

According to the psychologist, Anders Ericsson, deliberate practice triggers extraordinary physiological processes. It activates the expression of a range of dormant genes in our DNA leading to concomitant changes in our minds and bodies.

No doubt, becoming adept at something makes us feel confident. Our locus of control becomes internalized. We are no longer dependent on the outside world for validation.

If we can just focus on cultivating the skills and habits needed to move us in the direction of who we wish to become, slowly those negative images/voices in our head will quieten and one day slowly disappear.

Changing our core beliefs change our mindset which changes our neurobiology which changes who we are.

I have personally experienced this happening to me. Gradually, you begin seeing yourself differently, you are no longer perceive yourself through the distorted looking glass of your past.

Small, consistent steps at self-efficacy and self-mastery will catapult you to a whole new You.

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